By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
Bill Belichick predicted it.
Let Patrick Mahomes escape the pocket, and your defense is going to start to have issues. Though the Patriots were able to keep Mahomes contained on 28 of his 36 pass attempts, the eight where he extended the play outside the pocket were deadly. Belichick saw the potential dangers a mile away.
“He gets [the ball] out of his hands, unless he’s not pressured, then he extends the plays and then the other problems start to increase – him running, throwing down the field, so forth,” Belichick remarked during his Wednesday presser.
Mahomes completed 11 passes of over 10 yards on Sunday night. Those completions happened at a higher rate on his attempts outside the pocket (3-of-5) than inside (8-of-18). He threw three of his four touchdowns inside the pocket, so his passer rating while contained (110.9) was going to be higher than it was outside (106.3). But his rating after rolling outside the hash marks is nothing to sneeze at, and that’s where he made some of the Chiefs’ most explosive plays.
As much as the deep coverage can be blamed for the Patriots’ big-play problems, they happened mainly because Mahomes was able to escape the pocket in the first place. That started with problems up front.
Take this 19-yard completion to Chris Conley in the first quarter. Linebacker Kyle Van Noy, often lined up in an edge role, rushed inside toward the A-gap before cutting back outside. This gave Mahomes enough space to roll out to his right before completing a strike to Conley.
The coverage also couldn’t quite hold up in this spot. Jason McCourty kept his zone and focused on Kareem Hunt, while Devin McCourty appeared to be locked in on Tyreek Hill as he was slow to react to the throw to Conley. You can see below that the receiver found a gaping hole over the middle to make the catch.
The bigger issue here, though, is that the Pats couldn’t keep Mahomes contained inside. As it played out in the first half, Mahomes can be rushed into errant throws if he’s kept in the pocket as it collapses around him. Once he gets out, whole different ballgame.
The Patriots also broke down up front on Mahomes’ 27-yard completion to Hill in the second. Adrian Clayborn gets leveraged inside, Trey Flowers gets flattened, Deatrich Wise gets double-teamed, and that’s a strong recipe for losing contain. Patrick Chung blew his coverage downfield and Duron Harmon couldn’t disrupt the pass, but the real problem on this play was letting Mahomes run free.
Despite these big plays, Mahomes burned the Patriots the worst in the third quarter on a 67-yard touchdown to Hunt. This appears to be more of an issue with design than any one player. Van Noy dropped back into coverage, but with Travis Kelce running to the opposite side of the field, he ended up with no one to cover. Adam Butler did a fine enough job staying in pursuit, but he alone couldn’t keep Mahomes inside.
It also didn’t help that Devin McCourty left the deep right part of the field open and stayed in the middle on Hill, even as Mahomes rolled out to his right. This left Jason McCourty covering Hunt one-on-one, and that’s far from ideal. Hunt had separation and an open field, and that was all the Chiefs needed.
The Patriots did a much better job pressuring Mahomes in the first half, and often did it by keeping him contained and pushing the pocket back. As Belichick predicted, Mahomes only got more dangerous after he escaped. His yards per attempt jumped from 8.6 inside the pocket to an ugly 13.4 outside.
One big outlier was the Chiefs’ longest play of the night, Hill’s 75-yard touchdown late in the fourth quarter. That was mainly a coverage breakdown as Mahomes stepped up in the pocket to make the throw. But at the same time, there was no pressure on him whatsoever.
Belichick put it bluntly. Inside the pocket, outside the pocket, there’s nothing positive to pull from the big plays.
“I’d just say that was just bad defense, bad coaching, bad playing, bad everything,” said Belichick during his Monday morning conference call. “[The 75-yard touchdown] wasn’t really an extended play. No, it wasn’t a scramble. The [67-yard touchdown] to [Kareem] Hunt was more of a scramble play, which that was more of the same – bad coaching, bad playing, just bad defense.”
It’s quite possible that these teams meet again in January. Mahomes is so dynamic that the Patriots defense is essentially going to have to pick its poison. Based on how things went when they couldn’t set the edge, it’s likely that they’ll try to make Mahomes work from inside the pocket – and quickly – for 60 full minutes.
They just learned the hard way. Let him get comfortable, or let him out of there entirely, and big-time problems will happen.
Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at email@example.com.